Simply by existing, journalism makes the incentives that guide government and culture marginally better, or at least that's the idea.
In March, the Austin American-Statesman announced that it was being sold by its corporate parent, Cox Media Group, to an ill-regarded New York company called GateHouse Media. Cox treated the Statesman poorly in recent years, laying off reporters and ensuring that the paper contains yesterday’s news by outsourcing its printing to San Antonio. But GateHouse is a bottom-feeder — it buys profitable local papers, strips them of assets for quick cash, fires a significant portion of the staff, gives its executives big bonuses and moves on to the next set of bones to pick clean. The company bought the profitable Columbia Daily Tribune in 2016. Two years later, the Missouri paper has one full-time reporter to cover a city of 120,000 people.
The Austin metro area is home to more than 2 million people, who are unusually well off, highly educated and civic-minded. If any mid-size American media market ought to be able to support a high-quality daily newspaper, it’s Austin. The Statesman is the paper of record for the capital of the second most populous state in the country. And when the Austin bombing spree began in March, the Statesman produced a string of high-quality reports that provided accurate information to residents as the national media lost its collective mind, showing what a local paper does at its best.
If GateHouse accelerates the feedback loop at the heart of newspaper decline — whereby owners cut investment in the paper to boost revenue in the short term, which decreases quality, which decreases revenue in the long term — Austin will be worse off, and so will everyone else in Texas, at least a little bit.
For decades, Texas had probably the best statewide media ecosystem in the country, particularly when it comes to state politics. Each big city had a good newspaper or two that competed to cover the Capitol. Daily newspapers aside, there aren’t really analogues to the Observer, Texas Monthly or the Texas Tribune in other states. You don’t have to read good reporting to benefit from living in a place that offers it — simply by existing, journalism makes the incentives that guide government and culture marginally better, or at least that’s the idea. Quality media is a sort of public trust.
But of course newspapers aren’t public trusts, they’re businesses. That wasn’t a problem when they made money hand over fist, but they’re not doing that anymore, so private equity is stripping them for parts. That puts you, the reader and citizen, in an unfortunate position. When other civic institutions are degraded, like public schools, you have the opportunity to elect new officials with different agendas. When companies like GateHouse are hurting you and your state, you have no recourse.
What can be done? A common suggestion is to subscribe to your local paper. But what use is it to give money to a paper’s owner if the owner isn’t investing in the paper? Often the suggestion is that something will replace newspapers. But it’s a lot easier to knock down an institution than to build one, and there’s not exactly a lot of money in local news to incentivize invention.
This is an unhappy topic in part because the actions that might alter journalism’s course are so overwhelmingly big that they seem farcical in the current political climate. One idea: break up the monopoly power of Google and Facebook, and more heavily regulate the internet as a public utility. Another: de-link newspapers from the profit motive — make them independent, focus their scope and subsidize them, as we do with PBS. More fanciful still, what if a significant portion of the Statesman’s subscribers formed a reader’s union that could threaten to “strike” by canceling subscriptions and harming GateHouse’s investment if the company fails to protect the paper?
But there’s little opportunity for the public to understand what’s going wrong or why. Journalists complain bitterly, but mostly among themselves. When a private equity firm bought Texas Monthly in 2016, it quickly became clear through journalists’ whisper networks that something was going very wrong. But readers had no way of knowing. No in-state publication reported on what had become an open secret until the distant Columbia Journalism Review started to write stories about it.
It’s easy to understand why a paper with a crummy owner isn’t sending reporters to write about other publications’ crummy owners. But doing so would be an obvious first step. Texas could sorely use a reporter who can publicize what’s going on inside the state’s newsrooms. Without that, the state’s institutions will keep burning down, and the arsonists will get away with it.